time to pretend.

My social media circle is crackling with excitement and fraught with anxiety.

Long hours of training, strategizing, and preparing have led up to race day and now it's time to see what the shaping, reshaping, and honing has wrought.

Friends are excited.  Friends are worried.  Friends are brimming with confidence or drowning in doubt, in some cases brimming with confidence AND drowning in doubt.

I am not brimming, nor am I drowning.  I am strangely calm and nearly numb.

Not because I am supremely confident (I am not) and not because I am particularly sure that I will fail (I don't believe I will).

As my race has approached, I have told myself that I am excited and asked myself if I'm ready to go or worried about the outcome and, honestly, I haven’t gotten much confirmation that I am excited or, frankly, much of a response at all.

Calmness.  Numbness.

With all that has transpired over the last year and all the real life challenges that I've experienced, witnessed, or have learned of others facing, to suggest that voluntarily running a race, even one of great length, extreme obstacle, and (apparently) less than ideal weather conditions...to suggest that it matters all that much would just be pretending and pretending unconvincingly.

Not to say that I am NOT looking forward to the Eastern States 100.

I am.

It doesn't mean that I am NOT super enthused to gather with the tribe again, share our individual stories, and write new ones together.

I absolutely am.

And NOT to say that the prospect of being out and on-the-move for 30+ hours in high temperatures, soaring humidity, and predicted powerful storms isn't daunting.

It is.


At this moment of my limited time on the planet, the “larger than life” narrative of running ultra distances is, well, nowhere near as large as life much less larger.  The ability to engage in aerobic activity that includes or transforms fully into physical discomfort or even pain is the privilege of those who are not weak, are not terminally ill, are in possession of the true luxury of leisure time, are among the living.  That realization lets a lot of air out of the ultra running balloon, but not nearly as much air as being weak, being terminally ill, not having leisure time, or not drawing breath takes out of life itself.

At no point during a race is my life at risk.  Even if failing to take proper care of myself nudges me in that direction, simply stopping alleviates the threat.  I have direct say in how at risk my life is when many do not.

Failing to reach the finish line won't bring life screeching to a halt any more than triumphantly crossing that same finish line will much improve my post-race existence.

It's amazing the trivial things that we elevate to such great heights and equally amazing the not-so-trivial things that we disregard or take for granted.

My legs will be tired and my feet will hurt.  Sounds nice to have legs that are tired and feet that hurt must think those that have neither.

My stomach will likely rebel and empty itself or refuse to be filled.  And then when the race is over, I'll eat as much as I want of whatever I want and my stomach will cooperate.  I will not go hungry and I will not be sick.  Others will go hungry, will be sick, as they have for as long as they can remember and as far into the future as they are able to imagine.

My distance to travel will diminish and in the end will be reached and should I fail to cover the desired distance on foot, I will get a ride to some other vehicle that waits to whisk me away to the comfort and safety of my home.  Guaranteed and never, ever in doubt.  Unlike those without a home or a means to get to where they wish to go or away from where they desperately need to be no more.

My mind will falter, will bend, and perhaps even break momentarily, but rest and sleep will return its faculties.  My brain will not cease to function, will not be damaged, or require parts of it to be removed.

No, I have not lost my want to physically challenge myself nor have I lost my admiration and respect for anyone who willingly takes on an endeavor that asks her or him to strive, to progress, to move, move, move!  I will forever cheer on friends and strangers alike and will laugh, tearfully, as they attain their goals and overcome those things that appeared to stand in the way of their progression.  I will continue to attempt the same and will shed tears and roar with laughter for my own efforts.


I have known true sadness and had some that lay dormant dredged back to the surface.  I've known anxiety and worry over matters that really matter.  Seen others’ health deteriorate, their finances vanish, even entire foundations of life crumble beneath them.  I've whispered goodbyes, wailed goodbyes, sometimes too late to have them heard.  I have felt truly powerless, BEEN truly powerless to right wrongs and save others from pain and sorrow.

All of which makes me human, none of which makes me unique.

Running and finishing (or not finishing) a race is full of symbolism and the before, during, and after are rich with life lessons.  Rich with lessons about life. But it isn’t life and shouldn't be mistaken or misrepresented as such.

It is play.  It is joyful, privileged play, but it is still pretend.

And so I am calm and nearly numb.

And for the better part of two days this weekend, I will embrace the absence from reality and the privilege of not worrying about anything that really matters for a short while.

I will play and I will smile, and laugh, and likely cry.

Time to pretend.



I'd been out all night.

Starting from the parking lot just off of Route 322 below the Clark's Ferry Bridge that crosses the Susquehanna at Duncannon, I had headed north on the Appalachian Trail right around dusk, climbing up Peters Mountain, continuing past the crossing of Route 325, making an abbreviated loop up Stony Mountain on a portion of the unofficial Buzzards Marathon course, before returning along the AT.

Pace be damned, I had clambered up any boulder that looked interesting, stopped as often and for as long as liked to snap photographs, chatted with the many deer crouching silently in the illumination of my headlamp with seeming conviction that so long as they didn't flinch I couldn't really see them, and even sleepily serenaded a porcupine with an infamous Sir Mix-a-Lot song when it would turn and offer only views of its rear end.  I had paused frequently to listen to the night sounds; the whoo-whooing of owls, the downward, downward, always downward rushing of water, the soft, nearly imperceptible sound of caterpillar droppings drizzling from the forest canopy (yes, that's a thing), and, in the deepest hours of the night, the elusive, mesmerizing sound of silence.

Just before daybreak, the rain had begun to fall and over the next several hours it showed no signs of letting up.  As much as I had enjoyed myself, the piling up of miles, the early stage of sleep deprivation, the relentless rocks of Peters Mountain, and hours of being wet and chilled had caught up with me and found me picking my way along one of the last rocky outcrops with tired, sloppy feet, beginning to dread the final few miles of steep descent back to the trail head.

The clicking of trekking pole tips on rock announced that a hiker was approaching from just below my perch and immediately reminded me that I hadn't seen a single person actually hiking since I'd started.  During the night, I had passed the tents of many slumbering backpackers and in the morning I had waved and nodded at many of them as they peeked out of their sodden tents, huddled around smoky campfires, or went through the motions of breaking camp and packing for the day, but at no point had I truly come upon anyone hiking.

I stepped to one side of the trail to allow the ascending hiker clear passage.  He lifted his head, squinted his eyes slightly, and declared, "I know you" in an unmistakable Pennsylvania Dutch accent that was familiar and welcoming despite my never having met the man before.

"Backcountry Edge," he said, proudly gesturing at his pack and adding that it was the one I had "advertised on the Internet."

I formally introduced myself and asked him his name and where he was from, learning that Amos hailed from a small town located 4 miles west of the even smaller town that I had grown up in as a small child.

Amos in turn asked how long I'd been out and I shared my overnight adventure and admitted that I was feeling pretty done in.  I posed to him the same question and he told me that his "speed hike" had begun a short time earlier from the same parking lot I was headed toward and would end, he hoped, around midnight where the Appalachian Trail crosses over Route 645 just south of Pine Grove.

That's a 42 mile done-in-a-day hike.  I would finish my night/day at 37.

Noting how little gear he was carrying, I wondered aloud, "Will you camp when you get there? Will someone be meeting you?"

He grinned, shrugged, and replied almost sheepishly, "I have one of those push scooters, you know that the Amish people have."  It was stashed near the trail head and once he was done hiking, he would scoot himself the 15 road miles back home.

Smiling broadly, I said, "Amos, you've got a big day ahead of you. Don't let me hold you up."

"This is unbelievable, meeting you out here on the trail like this," Amos replied with a warm smile of his own and a "gee whiz" shaking of his head.

"It's been a pleasure," I agreed as Amos turned to go.

I watched him deftly navigate the ledge, slightly stunned that I had made his day.

He'd certainly made mine.

Those last few miles back to the car?

They weren't so bad after all.


clockwise: another day on the black forest trail.

Three fifty-three in the afternoon.

We'd been following the Black Forest Trail in the same direction as the hands of the clock for hours and it wasn't until nearly 4 in the afternoon, by accident, that I happened to notice the time, a healthy indication that a day of days had been unfolding and continued to unfold.

It had been just shy of 3 years since I last went all the way round the BFT in a single push (http://thisbeesknees.blogspot.com/2013/05/erithizon-dorsatum-day-on-black-forest.html) but the many conversations had about the trail and my stumbly-bumbly circumnavigations since then made it feel far less than that.  So recent had that last visit continued to feel, I didn't fret much over the fact that I hadn't really revisited maps or my own report about that trip ahead of this one, as it all seemed very fresh and my navigational oh-I-know-where-I'm-going naivete remained undiminished.

photo courtesy of pahikes.com

To be fair, the trail and its frequent orange blazes are rather easy to follow, but that hadn't kept me from getting turned around more than once back in 2013 and head-down running and trudging has a knack for luring me off even the most well-marked track.  Forty-two+ miles and thousands of feet of gain (and loss) tend to produce some head-down periods even in the most ideal conditions.

counter-clockwise progresses from right to left on this profile
The course was the same as had been on the May day of my first thru-run, but the temperatures and the state of the trail were quite different. While this final weekend of February wasn't serving up the worst of winter, it was still quite cold and blustery and the trail, showing little sign of winter use, alternated frequently between leaf strewn, iced-over, muddy, and full blown underwater.

Other than going around this time in a non-traditional (for the BFT) clockwise direction, the most dramatic difference would be having company.


A neurotic confession:

I often struggle to describe or even define in my own head my relationship with running and other runners.  Much of what I love about trail running is the solitude and the stepping away from, if only for minutes and hours at a time, the ever present presence of other people.  I'm not a loner in the most literal sense, but I've got my me-just-me streak and attending to it with time in the woods makes me that much more the people-person I am, genuinely, most of the time.  That said, many of my fondest on-trail moments have been spent with like-minded friends and those experiences are surely richer and more deeply textured because of having shared them.

Running group dynamics and their undefined tipping points are a source of anxiety for me and, once that anxiety surfaces, my fixating on it leads only to its amplification.  I don't want to be the one holding up a group anymore than I want to find myself, especially on long, challenging projects, pushing too hard, consciously or sub-consciously, and digging a physical hole that leads to a miserable experience or a total blow-up and possibly even an unfinished route.  Remove time limits and checkpoint cutoffs of organized races from the picture and, rest assured, I will get from point A to point B, but predicting the time (or how many times I throw up while getting there) is a bet not worth making.

Getting to the "finish" is one thing, but enjoying the getting there is something else altogether.  Including others means complicating logistics and requires time coordination. Politics, religion, differing personalities, even just simply not being on the same page are threats to the individual and the entire group being able to walk away with the feeling that whatever occurred really did happen together and the experience was better than it would have been on one's own.

It only takes one and you catch yourself wondering "what was with her (or him)?"

And it's not just about "them", it's also about me not wanting to be the "him" for anyone else in the group.  A read back over the preceding paragraphs makes me feel like maybe I really am a hermit-at-heart, but I don't believe I am.  As the years pass and I consciously and determinedly expend more energy getting "out there" to experience nature, the deeper grows the awareness of just how short our lives really are and how little is the actual time to spend recharging in the outdoors and what a terrible disappointment to find the time but have it be the exact opposite of a recharge.


Three fifty three in the afternoon.

Three fifty-three in the afternoon and the only wasted time was whatever seconds I had spent beforehand fretting unnecessarily and irrationally (I know these people...I LIKE these people...I should consider myself blessed--I do--that anyone tolerates me!) over group dynamics.


The alarm on my phone woke me around 6:00 AM after a cozy night of sleep in my makeshift back-of-the-car bedroom beneath the nocturnal watch of a moon shining brightly enough to glow through my closed eyelids.  I was sitting up, but still drowsily breakfasting from the comfort of my sleeping bag when Jeff and Ben pulled up alongside me on their way to the agreed upon rendezvous spot in the parking lot of the Hotel Manor in the tiny village of Slate Run. It was not even a quarter of a mile from where I'd parked for the night and we found Mary and Tom already waiting when we pulled into the lot a few minutes later.

Instead of immediately crossing Slate Run to start the loop as would have been the case in the counter-clockwise direction, we left the creek behind us and would reach it only at the very end of the run many, many hours later.  I grinned at the sight of the lovely new footbridge that eliminates the once unavoidable requisite soaking of that leg of the journey. While the cool of those waters was actually pleasant in May, it would have been less so to kick off a 20 degrees morning.

Off we went, the five of us, up the short stretch of road along Pine Creek and into the woods. I didn't "write" a trailhead log entry, so much as I "pressed" one into the paper with a dry tip that refused to summon frozen ink from the bowel's of a feeble pen.  Tom's assurances that rescuers could always make rubbings to determine that we'd been there convinced me it had been an effort well made.

After a nice gradual start for the first mile-and-a-half, the Black Forest Trail rose aggressively into one of the steepest climbs of the day, but fresh legs and early-in-the-day enthusiasm got us quickly to the first sweeping vista. It had been quite dark and I had been in get-this-over-with mode the last time I'd stood here and it was a treat to soak in the view and get the first visual indication of what we we'd set out to tackle.  The wind blew tiny flakes of snow that seemed to emanate from the forest itself and dance in the air around us with no threat of developing into anything more than a nice aesthetic touch to the sweeping landscape all around us.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin J Mazur

The remainder of that climb followed a knife edge ridge and stayed exposed before the trail topped out and ducked in under the canopy of trees as it does for much of its length.  Up high there was still some remnant snow but it was losing ground to melt, evaporation, and the permanent blanket of rocks, roots, and dead leaves beneath it.  Snow-turned-water was on the move wherever able and in other places pooled within perimeters it could not escape, leading to wet and muddy shoes and feet.  Northern and western aspects of the trail held a thin and not always evident coating of ice that made for second-guessing especially when the trail tilted away from sidehills or bent around contours with open-air exposures for unsuspecting footfalls.  This slowed progress but none of us seemed to mind amidst shared conversation and scenery ideal for time taken to enjoy it.

Within a few miles, we reached Little Slate Run, the site of my strange encounter with a salt-scavenging porcupine three years ago.  I'm not a big believer in spirit animals, but am convinced that porcupines are for me whatever the opposite of a spirit animal would be considered.  Either it's that or perhaps the porcupine very much is my spirit animal and I'm just denying it in hopes of discovering a more inspiring alternative.  Either way, there was no sign of my nemesis today and that was oddly reassuring.

Another solid climb and a few more miles brought us down to and across a rushing Naval Run. I remembered, painfully, having not drawn water here on my first visit in the frustrated haze of getting turned around and adding bonus miles.  Trying to push hard and make up for lost time had led to dehydration and exhaustion as punishment for my haste.  This same recollection, however, also reminded me, that water had been plentiful leading up to that point and considering how much more wet conditions were this time around, I was encouraged that staying hydrated wouldn't be of issue today.

The views up above Naval Run are some of the best on the entire trail but hard-earned coming clockwise, as there is one long, seemingly endless Pennsylvania "up" required to get there.  Topping out together, we were rewarded with the postcard-worthy southeasterly views of the Pine Creek Gorge far below.

We'd reached the point on the trail where the calamity of my solo run was now behind us and perhaps not surprisingly the surroundings became a little less familiar for me, as the vivid details of the stretches of trail where the wheels had come off had overshadowed the memories of mile-after-mile of relatively smooth sailing. Long stretches of the trail now felt brand new as if I was traversing them for the very first time.

Hours passed like minutes and despite slippery footing and the hard work of another sneaky long climb, I was stunned to find that we'd come more than 20 miles and arrived at Route 44 and the location of the Halfway House aid station (mile 51.8) on the Eastern States 100 course.  The location itself is rather nondescript, an otherwise un-noteworthy unpaved roadside pull off, but it was where Mary's car was parked and where she and Benjamin had planned all along to call it a day.  Mary produced from her car a thermos of wonderfully hot black tea and an array of muffins and homemade energy clumps or balls or whatever-they-were...and whatever-they-were was delicious!  Delicious and invigorating.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin J Mazur

Solitude shmolitude.  At this stage of the adventure, it was sad to see any member of the group go, but it was time for our now group of three to get moving so we bid farewell, crossed Route 44, and returned to the BFT.

As nice as it was to have gotten some warm beverage and food into our systems, the sitting around had let the cold sink a little deeper into our collective bones and each of us agreed that the chill had set in.  Unsure of whether or not the winds would soon pick up, as the weatherpersons had predicted, and what might become of the temperatures as the late day sun eventually fell away entirely, none of us was yet willing to dig into the extra layers that we were carrying as doing so would leave us without the psychological boost of additional warmth to turn to later.

Movement brought about healthier internal temperatures even as the footing became increasingly wet and muddy.  Our feet certainly weren't getting any warmer or any more dry, but above the ankles, we were moderately comfortable.  The three of us speculated over the location of a high, open, boggy section of the trail and had half convinced ourselves that we'd somehow already crossed it when the trees suddenly grew more sparse and the broad meadow we'd been waiting for appeared.  Sure enough, it was a shallow sea of muck that offered no alternative to simply gritting teeth and getting through and across it in as direct a fashion as possible.  In the end, it was only a couple of hundred yards across and didn't live up to the full foreboding of floundering wallow we'd feared.  Still, it only ensured that our feet remained anything but dry.

Not that it would have mattered much.

Soon thereafter we hit the spot on the trail where a "High Water" alternate route is offered for instances where storms or runoff have elevated the creek that the trail cuts back-and-forth across repeatedly (I lost count somewhere around 12 or 13 and didn't bother tallying the many more that came after) over the next couple of miles.  We'd come to do the entire Black Forest Trail, so there wasn't a moment's hesitation or any discussion, as we ignored the alternative.

While I hadn't bothered to track our time or mileage at any point in the day, we'd made steady progress, especially when the trail was more or less runnable.  Here, though, our pace ground to a halt as we sought out downed trees, rocks, narrow gaps, shallow pools, or other, all-things-being-relative, safe passages from one bank to the other.  We nearly considered just sticking to one side of the creek, but with no clear indication of exactly how many times the trail crossed before peeling away from the creek, it seemed unwise to stray far from the orange blazes.

At one point, Jeff even did an upside-down, hand-over-hand maneuver across one of the broader sections of creek that I was sure would end in failure.  It wasn't me who'd had the idea, however, but a far more competent adventurer and it was actually one of the only "dry" crossings that happened in that entire section.

We were losing light quickly and while getting wet was inevitable, mitigating the time spent shin-to-thigh deep seemed worth the sluggish yards-per-hour pace to which we'd dropped.  Finally and with the sun now off to shine on other hemispheres, we put the last of the high water behind us.

Pausing just long enough to dig out the headlamps that would from there on be our guides, we worked our way down into the beautiful Algerines Wild Area, one of my absolutely favorite sections of the trail and a spot high on my list of "creek stomping" destinations for me and my daughters.  The only downside to going clockwise was reaching this area in the darkness but even without the sun to illuminate it, this lush, pristine cut is lovely.

Jeff relayed a story about the derivation of the term "Algerines" as a reference to pirates who thieved timber from the lumber companies in the 1800's by stealing logs before they reached the mills, sawing off the sections that held the company's claiming brand, and replacing it with their own before selling the logs off for their own profits.  I had no idea of whether or not that was true and even Jeff acknowledged that it was a "so I was told" type of tale, but I have since dug up the following from William James McKnight's A Pioneer Outline History of Northwestern Pennsylvania: "Along the lower end of our creeks and on the Allegheny River there lived a class of people who caught and appropriated all the loose logs, shingles, boards, and timber they could find floating down the streams. These men were called by the early lumbermen Algerines, or pirates."

While this doesn't quite live up to the swashbuckling images I concocted in my head upon hearing Jeff's story, it does seem to lend credence and I quite like that this truly wild remnant place in Pennsylvania bears such a name.

On this night, the only pirate we ran into was, you guessed it, a porcupine, and it didn't stand its ground, departing the side of the trail in a hurry (by porcupine standards) as we passed by.
borrowed, respectfully, from the interwebs

Other than late miles on cold, tired legs, the only real remaining obstacle was the challenging climb up along Red Run leading to the final ridge that parallels Slate Run and eventually leads to the namesake village. Coming counter-clockwise, this descent, done on still energized legs, is a super fun, technical bomb.  The "trail" here consists mostly of boulder hopping and route-finding with the occasional visual confirmation of a nearby orange blaze to confirm that you haven't strayed too far off course.  On exhausted legs and with runoff-turned-to-ice tucked here or there to complicate footing, the clockwise ascent is pretty punishing. Thankfully, it wasn't nearly as long a climb as I had remembered and, at this point in the day, going up felt a lot better than going down.

Topping out, we knew we were within 10 kilometers of the Hotel Manor parking lot and had nothing but rolling ridge top ahead of us until the final long descent to Slate Run.  With no ambient light to mask its glory, the clear sky rained down starlight and welcomed gawking at the Milky Way in all its splendor.  Were we not so depleted and the cold air not so capable of bringing on hypothermia to the unwary, we would have loved to perch up on the many rock shelves to spectate.

As had been the case all day long, stories continued to be swapped and laughter remained ever present as we power-hiked along. While the warmth of the car, a cold beer, and a hot meal were beckoning, these last miles weren't wrought with the desperate how-much-farther, how-MUCH-farther! that often accompanies the end of a long endeavor.

We joked of turning around at the cars to finish our out-and-back and even as we and our worn out knees clambered stiff-leggedly down the final quarter mile of hillside with the sparse lights of Slate Run in plain view, I couldn't help but think that going back out again didn't sound all that bad.

Next time, friends (if you'll have me).


beyond the stats.

The day one calendar replaces another is the day runners knee-jerkingly tally the numbers and report their statistics.

I'm a runner (I think), so here's my look back at 2014.

Mileage:  ?
Vertical Gain:  ?
Number of Summits:  ?
Finishes:  ?

Ultrarunners in particular love to tout the lessons that long-distance running doles out.  There's even a commonly held belief that the range of emotions, the physical highs and lows reached while covering 50-100 miles in a single day is nearly a condensed lifetime unto itself.


Or, more likely, it's just a more-than-a-normal-single-day experience.  To be fair, that's quite a lot and I don't mean to scoff so much as to maybe dial down the answers-to-everything mythos.

As an aside:  I sometimes wonder if there's an abstract math equation to prove that the degree to which a runner (or some other pick-the-sport athlete) holds up the tutorial aspects of her or his running (swimming, baseball hitting, pole vaulting, hot dog eating, etc.) is directly relative to how much he or she is ignoring or denying the factual lessons of real life.

I share those things I think I've learned through running with my children and feel quite certain that the love and respect of the outdoors that is the real impetus for my being out on the trails has impacted them and made them aware of the fact that there is magic in the natural world not equaled or matched by virtual reproductions or distractions.  After that, my favorite hobby takes a backseat to other realities in terms of bestowing wisdom (have I any). 

Which brings me to a Target parking lot a few weeks ago.

Lily and Piper Bea had accompanied me on (for me) a brave venture into the teeth of holiday retail madness.  We had knocked out the last of our gift gathering and for the most part avoided any of the mine-mine-mine consumer conflict the mass media is all too happy to report.  Said conflict is surprisingly easy to avoid if you don't yourself feel entitled to, well, everything.

We'd walked in with smiles and we walked out with smiles, an admittedly minor miracle on my part as I tend to be all too on-the-watch for reasons to be disappointed in humanity on shopping excursions.  Shame on me for such a mindset and perhaps writing this post is yet another lesson learned.

As we steered out of our aisle and passed by the other stores in the shopping center, I noticed an elderly woman approaching a crosswalk on a motorized grocery cart.  I coasted into a stop well ahead of the crosswalk and gently waved the woman across with my biggest of neighborly smiles.

She grimaced in my direction and pulled one hand off the steering column to gesture towards the ground as though demanding me to stop.  I had already stopped.  I was stopped, smiling, and patiently waiting for her to cross.

The furrow on her brow deepened and she wagged a pointed finger at me before repeating her "slow down" gesturing.

Stunned, I felt my smile melt into a confused gape, my gentle waving turning into a frustrated shrug and a sweeping arm pleading for the woman to "cross the road already".

Exasperated, the woman shook her head accusingly from side to side and inched into the crosswalk.  As she and her cart crept by in front of our car, she continued to cast annoyed glances at me while muttering to herself.

I began to roll down my window with the intent of explaining to the woman that I had been stopped all along and had been happily intent on giving her the opportunity to cross safely.  Before I could say a word, she reached the other side, threw both of her hands in the air, and thrust them at me in a manner that made it clear I was being dismissed.

Remembering that the girls were in the backseat and recognizing that what was about to come out of my mouth was going to be something quite inappropriate, I rolled the window up and moved along.

"Girls, I just don't understand why people assume the worst.  I really do believe that, deep down, we are all good people and mean to treat each other fairly.  It's a real shame that we lose sight of that so often and that a joyous time like Christmas can actually cause us to be less nice, not nicer."

A peek in the rear view mirror revealed that my daughters were actually hanging on my words while looking curiously at the woman.

I continued spelling out how that woman had jumped to conclusions without even considering that....

just then a man stepped out in front of us waving his arms with an unmistakable urgency.

I slammed on the brakes, wondering what the hell was going on now and finding the want to escape the parking lot jumping to the top of my holiday wish list.

The man stepped to the front passenger window and I rolled it down to find out the nature of his flagging us down.

"Your headlights aren't on," came through the open window with a warmth that made me immediately appreciative and thoroughly embarrassed at my own assumptions.  My rescuer began to walk away from our vehicle, stopped, turned back to the open window and smiled a "Happy Holidays to all of you" before returning to his errand and vanishing into the store.

By the time I repositioned my dropped jaw and processed my having moments before teetered on the brink of yelling at an elderly, mobility-challenged woman who was trying to alert me to the fact that I needed to turn on my lights, there was no sign of her and any opportunity to apologize and thank her had been lost.  We drove around the parking lot for a few minutes making certain that she truly had gone.  Guiltily, I explained to the girls the mistake that I had made and asked them to forgive me for my having been so hypocritical.

"You are good, Daddy.  You are mostly nice to people."  So said my tell-it-like-it-is daughter, Piper Bea.

Any respectable recap needs a stating of future goals, right?  I actually don't know if that's right, but let's agree that it is.

So, here goes:

2015 Goals:  Be good, be nice.  Good-er and nicer than the day and years before.  Heed every lesson not just those imparted while wearing a race bib.

Everything else'll figure itself out.  Always has, always will whether I run 1 mile or 10,000, stand atop a mountain or don't, finish every race or fail to even start a single one.

Do glad.  Be nice.  Be good for goodness sake.


hazy shade of.

The night was amiss right from the start.

A heavy fog crept from the fields, crawled through the hollows, stole into the woods. and encircled every tree. Muted by the misty veil, the usually welcome luster of a full moon instead unnerved like the eerie glow of a flashlight from beneath a blanket or the indistinct flicker of a candle crouched behind a curtain.

An autumnal carpet of downed wet, moldering leaves stifled headway, the pliable surface giving way underfoot and luring shoes down toward the slippery rocks and uneven terrain hidden underneath.  Faint wisps of wind lacked the muscle to further hinder progress but prodded denuded tree limbs into scritchy-scratchy whispering in a barely-there primeval dialect that, though indecipherable, conveyed an uninviting sentiment.  Birds, normally talkative, had departed the trees or held their tongues, perched invisible, expectantly silent.

Shadows abounded but evaded identification.

The trail, a favorite, that regularly unfurls itself in the wash of a headlamp beam, pointing the way and urging exploration, seemed simply to cease its existence a few feet further on, engulfed by the flood of fog and swept away.

Fitting on this night that my headlamp click-clicked one final strobed goodbye and conked out to leave me stumbling about in a suddenly unrecognizable landscape.  I was no more alone than on any other solo outing, but the awareness of solitude was significantly more acute.

Bearings were lost. The absence of vision rallied the other senses and the smell of damp, decaying leaves and the otherworldly sounds of nocturnal nature cavorting in the darkness overwhelmed and added to my reeling.  Running was no longer an option as any pace exceeding a timid stagger was futile.

Escaping from my usual place of escape became my sole task and the snail's pace of accomplishing that task amplified anxiety.  Retracing steps and following the trail proved difficult, but abandoning that semi-beaten path for a direct descent of the ridge seemed madcap, irrational, too unsettling to realistically consider.

My nerves frazzled and my confidence shaken, I eventually reached the leveling of the grade that signaled the nearing road that would lead me back to the lot where my car was parked.  Relief washed over me as my feet struck pavement, a surreal and unusual emotion for me to wed with a return to man-made surfaces.

That peculiarity was magnified by the rumbling approach of an 18-wheeler and the deep, inhuman baying of its compression brakes.  Perhaps frightened by the thunderous announcement, the fog dispersed into the ether, as if on cue, and revealed with its departure the familiar beauty of a natural setting that siren-sings to me each waking day.

Conscious of my cowardice, my foolishness, I stood in the moonlight and understood, as I've understood all along, that there is nothing so terrifying in the forest as what lurks in our everyday haunted houses of artifice, poor decisioning, greedy us-versus-them posturing, societal stressors, corrupted (or ill-defined) morals, and political divisiveness that clouds a basic, shared want to live better lives in a place and within a culture that we can embrace and by which we can be embraced.

I find no literal fog so disorienting as the unrelenting march of human "progress", its nothing (NO thing) shall stand in the way agenda, and the all-is-well, wait, all-is-lost seesawing of a mass media hellbent on reporting every last gruesome, obscene, illogical, base, nonsensical, unimportant detail so long as it entertains or distracts long enough to justify the ad spend that funded its broadcasting in the first place.

The howl of the braking tractor trailer drifted into the distance.

My hands reached under the wheel well to retrieve my key and restraint was summoned to save that key from being hurtled into Hammer Creek, every ounce of resolve called upon to keep my feet from fleeing back into the forest, into the darkness, into the light.


half smashed.

Went and got myself all shook up there in early May.

Saying goodbye to a friend, breaking the news of that goodbye to the family, and then trudging through the days and weeks that followed in a lonely daze.  Usually, I'll write my way out of a funk like that, the letters initially fumbling around in the darkness, forming at last alliances in the eventual shape of words that finally band together into sentences that generate light enough to illuminate, however faintly, a way back onto the path.

Didn't happen this time, at least not in quick fashion.

The letters remained lifeless for weeks on end, not even making any noticeable effort to get to their feet much less team up with others to grant my sorrow voice.  To be fair, they'd given what they could in allowing me to give first report of the loss, but then they, I don't know, went into mourning or perhaps just fell over too exhausted from the effort to consider a return to action any time soon.

When runners can't run, they sulk and they fester.  They rot.  Even crap runners.

The same for writers, even if they are just hacks.

The letters, the words would not come, but I could and did still run though without the normal spark and certainly without the usual joy.  And, if you know me, that joy is pretty much the only point that I'm driving at in the first place.  To move forward without joy was heartbreak on top of heartbreak.

No sign of recovery in the letters, no hope of words, sentences, or healing paragraphs.

Deafening silence.

I tried to shrug off the not-writing.  "Just taking a little break," I'd tell myself, relieved that no one else was listening or needed convincing because the pitch was too poor to possibly end in a sale.

I tried to look on the bright side.  "You've got your health!"  Yep.  Lotta good that was doing me.

Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.

What happened to seeing the glass as half full?  Had I really become a half empty guy?

There was a teetering on the brink of becoming a full blown "shit, that glass is bone dry, long since empty" guy until I really stopped and gave the whole how-much-water-is-in-that-damn-glass proposition a proper think-through.

Half full, half empty, what's the difference?

Well, Leon, the difference is...ahem, let me just stop you right there.  I get it, but, the thing is, pondering that water level requires a recognition of the container and what space is available within that container and there's something inherent in the word "contain" that makes me immediately think of confines, of fences, of walls.  Here I was struggling to reclaim the joy while using an expression that relies upon confines, fences, and walls, constructs that certainly do not bring me any joy in the first place. 

None whatsoever.

Confines are shackles and I can't bear the idea of being restrained in any fashion.

Fences conjure up thoughts of selfishness, entitlement, "mine, mine, mine" tantrums, and the expectation of being told to keep out.

Walls make me think of being indoors which makes me think of not being outdoors which makes me restless.

And restlessness motivates me, gets me moving, shoves me out of doors to scale walls and climb over fences.  Restlessness drives me to shed confines, wiggle free of shackles, and...MOVE.  Movement, especially when openly acknowledged and celebrated as a counter to confines, fences, and walls brings me joy.

Some obstacles exist beyond our control, but other times we put them in our own way.  Often we are personally responsible for the walls and fences that stand in the way of whatever has the greatest potential to heal.  Sometimes we block out the joy. 

It was there, cloaked in a fog of sadness and loss, but there all along.

I was still moving but not acknowledging the gift of that ability to move.  But it was there, as were the letters.  They hadn't been lying there unresponsive.  They'd been pressed flat to the floor of my brain by the weight of my guilt and grief, gasping for air and trying to hold fast long enough for me to step aside and let them rise.

That guilt and grief filled a depressing glass all the way to the brim and there was nothing positive in its being full.

Curse that glass, full or empty.

Well, that glass is no more.  I smashed it.  Not half way, but all the way.  Shattered it.

My heart can go on hurting while on the move, healing too by no longer being safely hidden, "protected" by those glass walls.  Those walls had me not moving, not fully.

Those walls had me sulking, festering, rotting, but that's over.

Those walls are smashed, shattered, gone.

Sulking, festering, rotting is not doing glad and that just can't be.

I'm going running in the morning with my eyes, arms, and heart wide open.  I'm going moving and let it be known, joy, I am coming for you.

Just saying that makes me think I may have already found you.


you old buzzards, you.

Knowing full well what a cut engine in an unpaved lot at the end of a long car ride portends, Mamie had burst from the back of the car the second I popped open the rear window. Darting into and then immediately back out of the woods, she gave me a distrustful glance as she jogged to the other side of the lot to privately investigate the treasure she had excavated from the moldering leaves.

Following her and having a look myself, I couldn't decide if this skull and its Mamie-detached mandible were good or bad omens.

We were in Buzzards country after all.

Omens or not, dawn had broken, the sun was rising up off the eastern horizon, and all of Stony Valley invited adventuring from its roost just on the other side of Second Mountain at whose base we sat gawking from the valley of Fishing Creek.  It was time to lace up the shoes and get lost (or what felt like lost) for a few hours.

Neither Brian or I have ever run the full Buzzards Marathon course, weren't even sure we knew what trails or sequence of turns made up the course (which is to say, more truthfully, we were sure we didn't know), but we were certain that we were departing from the official, ahem, unofficial starting point of the infamous race that never was.

For those of you who are wondering what the hell I'm talking about, there isn't much I can tell you since the race really doesn't, perhaps never really did, exist.

Or did it?

Hard to say, but if you're curious (as I was and still am), here's a link that will let you draw your own conclusions:  Fact or Fiction? Lore of the Buzzards

As a quick aside, I believe I may have found the man who can tell me all there is to know (or not know), but my instincts suggest he may not give me straight answers, especially if I propose to write a definitive history of this near-mythical non-event.  Musings for another day and a different blog post.

Almost as soon as we stepped from the parking lot, our route began a steady climb of 700 some feet over about a mile and half.  The familiar yellow blazes of the Horse-Shoe Trail welcomed us early in the climb and I was reminded of coming the opposite direction on this same trail a few years ago when I had traveled the first 34+ miles of the trail on a long birthday run.  Going the opposite way and with the passing of even just a few years, I didn't recognize a thing, but that hardly mattered as we fell into a steady rhythm of movement and conversation.  We quickly reached the top of Second Mountain where the early morning sun cast long shadows and Brian and I gestured from one ridge to another, commenting on prior explorations.

Leaving the summit, we began a brisk downhill plunge that followed the straight arrow of an aging pipeline before hanging a sharp right to follow the Horse-Shoe Trail as it descended the ridge in more rolling fashion for the next 3 miles.  I did recognize this section of the trail and, as was the case on my first visit, I couldn't get over how long it seemed to take to cover that distance despite the fact that we were actually chugging along at a pretty healthy pace.

We had noticed fairly fresh bear scat near the top of Second Mountain and when Mamie crouched down into a defensive position and raised hackles I'd never seen her raise before, I was pretty sure we were about to get an up-close look at an Ursus americanus.

I don't possess any inherent fear of Pennsylvania's black bears, but, all the same, encounters remain relatively rare and the possibility of one definitely arouses a little adrenaline.

No such encounter materialized, however, and the at-attention stance of the hackles relaxed, signalling an end of our immediate concerns and allowing the adrenaline to seep away.

Down, down, down we continued before finally crossing the bridge over Stony Creek and then banking left to log a mile or so of rail trail on our way to the Water Tank Trail.

I wrote about the Water Tank Trail less than a month ago and, as it turns out, it isn't any less punishing in broad daylight than it is at night.  It was nice, though, to get on it this time without having first beaten up the legs with miles of self-correcting demanding ice, as was the case back in March, so it actually was a bit more manageable this go round.

Manageable is certainly a relative term and the rocks, downed limbs and steep grade still made for slow going and the rushing water of natural springs and winter run-off made for nice photo ops/chances to slow the pulse along the way.  Brian and Mamie began putting some time on me, but both were kind and patient enough to wait on me every now and then.

Rather than making the entire climb up Stony Mountain on the Water Tank Trail, we took a right-hand turn about a third of the way up the slope, following a trail dubbed Marcia's Madness and its orange blazes the rest of the way up the ridge.  Rumors would have us believe that this was true to the Buzzards course, but who can say?

Together, those two trails took us from the valley floor at roughly 180 feet to 1266 feet on the plateaued top of Stony Mountain in about a mile and a half.  To keep even the finickiest of masochists happy, they also threw in a healthy dose of rocks and roots in case the severity of the slope wasn't enough to render actual running a near impossibility.

Making yet another right hand turn, this time on to the Rattling Run Trail, we settled into one of the few real breaks of the day, a grassy track running north and east across the ridge top for a mile to a mile-and-a-half.

Red blazes to our left announced that we'd reached the H. Knauber Trail, our shortcut down to the Appalachian Trail below on the northern side of Stony Mountain.  No more than 100 yards onto the trail, we crossed paths with a hiker just about to top out on his way up from where we were headed.  The temperatures were maybe in the mid-60's but, despite looking strong and moving solidly (maybe because of this), the guy was sweating like it was a mid-summer 90 degrees with humidity to match.  After we put a little distance between ourselves and the hiker, I made mention of this to Brian and silently felt fortunate that we were going down rather than up.

Suffice to say, every drop of sweat staining that adventurous soul's shirt was hard-earned.  The descent of the H. Knauber Trail was a full-on screamer with big, deep in-cut steps and technical terrain the entire way.  By my Suunto's account, it gave away almost exactly a 1000 feet of elevation in 8 tenths of a mile.  By the time we reached the trail marker at the junction of the A.T., we were 10.5 miles into our day and my quads were well aware of the work we'd already done (and trying to ignore what might be left).  All I could think of was what that other guy had tackled by traveling the opposite direction.


We swung west (left) on the Appalachian Trail and continued to wind our way down into Clark's Valley, a section with which I was more familiar, having been on that stretch of trail several times before.  Once we reached the bottom of the valley, we peeled away from the A.T. on a blue-blazed, new-to-me trail and began slowly working our way back up the ridge we'd just descended.

The sun continued to inch higher in the sky and the temperatures climbed too, marking the first real warmth of Spring. Our gradual ascending wasn't too taxing but I was beginning to want for calories, actual food to accompany the electrolytes that I had been doing a decent job of consuming along the way.  We walked for a bit while I tried to choke down a Snickers but, finding my always cranky stomach to be rather disinterested, I put the half-eaten candy bar away, knocked back a couple of salt tabs, and returned to running.

Soon thereafter, our route, having grown impatient I guess with the slow climbing, turned sharply left and started beelining for the top of Stony.  And, just like that, we were off on another 1000-ish foot climb squished into just over a mile.  Brian machined his way up the ridge with Mamie in tow while I trudged from behind in not-so-hot pursuit.

I may have imagined it, but I believe somewhere along that ascent, a small box was handed to me inside of which I found my own pathetic, beaten, scrawny ass, a humbling gift to receive, I'll have you know.

The top of the mountain did finally arrive, as it always does.  Or, to put it another way, I did finally arrive at the top of the mountain, as I sometimes do.  Even with beaten ass in hand, I was smiling.  My friends were waiting, the surroundings were beautiful, and the weather was absolutely perfect.  None of these things made me not-tired or any more filled with energy, but, all the same, they were there waiting and I was grateful.

We were back on the Rattling Run Trail, this time heading west instead of east but I was no longer cruising along the smooth, grassy double-track.  Not hardly.

I gulped down water, downed another salt tablet, and plugged away (this is an ego-protecting alternative phrase for walking) with knowledge of the long, gravity-promising descent of Rattling Run Road just a mile or two ahead.  That promise pulled me like a tractor beam.  Yep, like a slow, but persistent tractor...sputtering...in first gear...but, still, you know, persisting.

We made far better time on the meandering 3 mile drop that is Rattling Run Road and were rewarded with a view of the two miles of right-straight-up-the-mountain-and-damn-your-switchbacks pipeline that we'd need to cover to top out one last time on Second Mountain.

But not so fast.  The pipeline would disappear from view before we got started.  There was a creek that needed crossing and it was running high, knee-high at some parts, scrotum-high at others.  

Trust me.

Brian made quick work of the crossing, squealing and screeching, perhaps involuntarily from the effects of 50 degree water on vulnerable parts of the anatomy.  Or maybe he just likes to squeal and screech.  Again, who can say?

Mamie had a good long look at the situation and even without the same anatomical concerns as her companions, she still wanted no parts of our fording.  She doesn't mind water actually or mud or any type of questionable footing, but she is resolute in her wanting to be able to touch bottom and Stony Creek wasn't offering that luxury at the moment.

There's nothing quite like hucking a nervous 50-pound dog across a swollen creek on fatigued legs and a queasy stomach while your nuts shrivel up so tight they feel like they might burst.

Trust me.

We made it to the other side and I'm happy to report that Mamie couldn't have been any more dry.  Whew.

And then it was time for that pipeline.  I mean, then it was time for trudging through some of the thickest muck this side of the Everglades and THEN it was time for that pipeline.

Brian cheerfully said something about running up it and off he went.


I watched him and Mamie go.  Watched them for a good 10 seconds.

Then I got down on all fours and vomited.

For real.

Once the spasms passed and I got back on two legs, I looked back the direction they'd gone and they were...um...gone.  Somehow I could see the whole way to the top of the mountain but couldn't see them.  I'd been man-downed for a few minutes, but they weren't that fast, not by that point in the day anyway.  A hundred yards away or half a mile, the point is they were long gone and I needed to start moving that way too.

Surprisingly, my legs weren't completely shot and I was still able to power hike which, while not as effective as running, is a whole lot faster in getting up a climb than walking, sitting or lying prone beside a puddle of your own puke.

Again, trust me.

It took a bit longer than I might have liked, but eventually I reached the intersection where earlier in the day the Horse-Shoe Trail had chosen a different compass setting.

I still had a good bit of ascending left to do, but I was getting there.  I vividly recalled the last time I'd come this direction and how brutal the climb had been from that point to the very top of the ridge.  I also, fortunately, remembered that there is one distinct false summit about 100-150 yards from the true top of Second Mountain.

Moments after mentally patting myself on the back for remembering that fact and avoiding the psychological letdown I might have experienced if I hadn't remembered, I found myself throwing up again.  True to my ridiculous form, it wasn't the kind of puking that produces any output, since my stomach had already been wrung dry.  Instead it was just a bout of spasms, a painful going-through-the-motions until my body accepted the fact that there wasn't anything else to evacuate.

Whether as a defense mechanism or some other character flaw, I always seem to find myself laughing after these episodes.  Perhaps it falls into the "might as well laugh about it" category and as stupid as that sounds as I type this, yes, you might as well.

So, topping out and discovering Brian and Mamie basking in the sun like two trail running pin-ups, I found myself laughing and happy, like always, to be out in the woods, among friends and still in possession of my flawed body and tenacious spirit.

"It's all downhill from here" is a dreaded cliche in ultrarunning, almost never true, but in this case it really was.  Less than 2 miles later, we were back in the parking lot, reflecting on the preceding hours.

Mamie humored me, as she always generously does, posing for an archival photo of the day's journey.

While I don't always bother to summon all the powers of my GPS, I decided to see what its charts had to report on our wandering and learned that we'd put in nearly 4400 feet of climbing and almost 21 miles.  My legs, like their owner, aren't very good at math, but they definitely concurred that work had been done.

Seems a full-blown Buzzards might have added my sun-bleached bones to those that Mamie had scrounged up earlier in the day.

Only one way to find out.

I can't wait.